Flat White

Sustainability: it’s not climate science

18 July 2018

8:07 AM

18 July 2018

8:07 AM

For a couple of decades now, climate-change has been more than a scientific theory. It is a political battlefield. Each side fights to avoid an imminent pathway to ruin: economic ruin tomorrow, or environmental ruin the day after. The battle-lines are clearly drawn: you’re either a sceptic, which makes you “anti-science”, “anti-environment”, “crazy”, “regressive” etc. or you believe in it, which makes you an “activist”, “ideologue” and “communist sympathiser” suffering from “cognitive dissonance”. The battle has become so expansive, that it appears to have dwarfed and consumed all other environmental issues, including sustainability itself.

The cutthroat climate-change quarrel has been conflated with sustainability but, actually, they are two different issues. The first is the much-contested prediction that our planet will warm up. The latter encompasses the certain and uncontested prediction that if we keep using finite resources, they will eventually run out.

Climate-change has also blocked our view of the fact that renewable energy, irrespective of the reality of climate change, has several clear advantages. The first is independence—imagine if the USA had not been reliant on the Middle East for oil last century, or if Europe was not reliant on Russia for gas? The second is, ultimately, cost—technology that produces energy but does not consume fuel has the potential to be very inexpensive, as the main expenses are only capital outlay and maintenance. Such inexpensive energy could do wonders for our manufacturing industry.

The third is the advantage the Western World could have by being “ahead of the curve” in achieving an effective sustainable energy industry. While large parts of Asia remain dependent on coal and LNG that they are purchasing from us, we will be utilising the technology they will later require when such supplies run out. This leads back to the primary advantage: sustainability. Resource scarcity will be expensive and potentially disastrous if we are not ready for it, it will result in increased cost long before it results in total depletion, and we will be feeling it within half a century.

As it happens, I am sceptical of climate change. Mildly. The carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is, undoubtedly, increasing—that’s an observation, not a hypothesis. That some of this is caused by people, is also clearly true. Whether this will actually change our planet’s net absorptivity? Hard to say. Is the average global temperature really going up? Hard to measure. Will it keep going up until it reaches apocalyptic proportions? That is the prophecy, but only God knows. If it is happening, can we stop it?

Probably not. More likely it will just not happen and we’ll take credit for stopping it, like a stimulus package during a non-existent recession. But we have good reason to be optimistic that sustainability can be solved because we are tapping into a planet that has natural energy cycles. The idea of “renewable” energy is that, rather than generating our energy using fossil fuels, we can re-direct energy that is already in circulation, and use it for our purposes. The energy is “free”, though the materials used in the technology are not.

Despite my climate-change scepticism, and as much as I tend to flock to the conservative banner, I can’t not like renewables. Maybe it’s the indoctrination of the era I grew up in, but I approve of sustainable energy and sustainable material usage. No, I don’t approve of heavy-handed government. Yes, I believe the time has come for sustainable technology to stand on its own two feet. But I also see that the government has a responsibility to ensure long-sighted, environmentally responsible behaviour from industries that otherwise have no incentive to clean up after themselves.

Yes, I am also aware that sustainable energy has been very disruptive in the Australian energy market, and especially in South Australia. The key disruption of SA’s renewables is that they are not available on demand, which means they don’t contribute to firm capacity. The storage conundrum has been known for decades to be the biggest problem with renewable energy, and there are two net holistic effects:

  1. Where once the hydrocarbon generators accounted for 100 per cent of net supply and 100 per cent of maximum required capacity, these days in SA they account only for around 70 per cent of net supply and decreasing, but they still need to account for near 100 per cent of capacity (for when it’s not windy or sunny). This reduction in utilisation must add to generation cost per unit energy, which is ultimately a problem for their competitiveness.
  2. Where once our hydrocarbon generator fleet needed the flexibility to track the demand curve, these days they must track the demand gap: the difference between the demand curve and the wind and solar supply curve. The demand gap is more volatile than just demand, which means that more responsive generation is needed. Some technologies, such as aero-derivative gas turbines, meet this need. Others, like old, base-load coal boilers, do not, which is why prices have occasionally gone negative – for them, it is sometimes cheaper to pay their customers than to power down.

However, an unpolarised perspective will acknowledge that other realities do also come into play in Australia’s current electricity price and reliability problems. Australia’s coal-fired power station fleet is, truly, ageing. AGL isn’t closing Liddell to screw everyone over; believe it or not, machines that have been operating nearly non-stop since they were designed using slide-rules half a century ago can be more expensive to fix than to replace, as is noticeable from the number of people who aren’t driving fifty-year-old cars. Also, it is unsurprising that no-one wants to invest in new coal-fired power because investors predict a significant disruption from renewables, due to the literally millions of people around the world working as hard as they can to ensure that renewables provide that disruption.

Gas prices are also high. We can trace that back to, inter alia, state legislation inhibiting exploration, OPEC playing games with the oil price, and federal government approval of four LNG plants on the one island in Queensland (did no-one tell them of the optimism of reservoir engineers?).

I frequently hear that renewables will never replace base-load coal generation. But, as Jules Verne asked, “how many things are denied one day only to become realities the next?” Sustainable energy technologies are improving.

The problem of energy storage is being attacked from both ends. On one end, effort is being made to reduce the demand gap. Diverse supply portfolios (wind, solar, wave, hydro, and geothermal) and good state-interconnectors can iron out the supply curve. Demand-response is another idea that substitutes indiscriminate load-shedding and the attending compensation claims, for voluntary load-shedding with a contract already in place. The most expensive part of electricity is paying for peak-demand capacity; some peak-load power stations will only turn on one day a year, but on that day they pack into their price a year’s worth of operation and maintenance costs. Substituting them for demand-response is a potentially enormous cost-saving even for a conventional (no renewables) energy market.

Effort is also being made to meet the demand gap sustainably. Battery technology, which I’ve been sceptical of due to lack of economy of scale, is actually growing more and more viable. Pumped hydro storage is being investigated—where there is existing hydro generation, it probably makes sense. Liquid air and molten salt store thermal energy efficiently and can “cut out the middleman” (electricity). Lastly, one of the most promising options is the creation of synthetic fuels. The most well-known is hydrogen and, in Australia, there are pilot programmes currently underway for comingling sustainably-made hydrogen into natural gas supplies; our gas network already exists and is, effectively, one big battery.

I am sympathetic to the anti-renewables voice. We are riding out consequences, both foreseen and unforeseen, of significant government interference in a market that wasn’t set-up for it. But the destination is not all grim. A sustainable future is an attractive one.

A wise colleague of mine, who has three decades of experience as an engineer in the public service, said that the best policies he’s seen come when the left does something the right would usually do, or the right does something the left would usually do. For me, John Howard’s ban on firearms would be an example of that. I think one cannot exhibit that sort of greatness with twitchy knees.

It is my hope, then, that Australia’s energy sector will change for the better. I do not know what that will look like. But I hope that decision makers, while being realistic, will be long-sighted, and willing to embrace change, and unafraid of a little risk, and visionary. With climate-alarmists on one side and anti-climate-alarmist-alarmists on the other, I hope that the voice of sustainability can be heard through the din.

Nick Kastelein is a Christian and a conservative, who grew up and lives in Adelaide and works for an engineering consultancy.

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